Abuse of a fragile ecosystem can prove disastrous, says the author, examining hydropower development in the Northeast.

A month after the “Himalayan Tsunami”, news channels have turned their attention to more sensational “current” issues. A few days ago they were blaring that it was not a Himalayan tragedy — it was a Himalayan blunder! We should have known better than to build bumper dams along mountain rivers in an ecologically fragile zone, the dynamics of which we understand very little.

Today, viewers like me are so accustomed to receiving shocks ever so often that, if one doesn’t have something as drastic and shocking as the previous news, there is a sense of emptiness almost leading to withdrawal symptoms. The nation seems to be almost addicted to this highly stimulating drama. Nobody has the time and patience to listen to the real causes of these problems, let alone comprehend in a manner that can lead to remedial action. We seem to be in a state of collective stupor.

During the Uttarakhand disaster reporting, many were in agreement that indiscriminate and senseless “development” was one of the predominant culprits in the sensitive and fragile eco-zone; hydropower development being perceived as a prime contributor. Oddly, this disaster could herald what could be in store further east along the Himalayan range. There too hydropower projects are being undertaken indiscriminately, despite technical advice to the contrary.

Hydropower development may not be bad in itself. In fact, considering the country’s infrastructure needs in general and energy requirements in particular, harnessing our hydropower potential wherever appropriate is definitely a good step forward. However, the approach to this development is the real issue here.

A case in point is Sikkim. The apathy towards the environmental impact of hydropower development is evident in the State where the recommendations of the Carrying Capacity Study undertaken by the National Hydropower Corporation of the Teesta River basin have been ignored conveniently. This study clearly mentions that the Teesta River basin, according to its carrying capacity, cannot take up more than six mega hydropower projects in the State.

The Comptroller and Auditor General (CAG) of India observed in its 2009 report on Sikkim that the land profile of the State consists of steep slopes and narrow gorges and is prone to weathering, erosion and frequent landslides. Further, it is also located in Zone IV of the seismic zone map of India. It adds that, during the last 50 years, as many as 115 cases of major landslides and nine major earthquakes of magnitude of more than five on the Richter scale, were recorded in the region. The CAG report specifically cautions against the establishment of hydropower projects that involve extensive excavation, tunnelling, blasting, construction of mammoth water reservoirs, powerhouses and allied works. Such activities put tremendous stress on the fragile environment of the State and could bring about unprecedented disasters and calamities (CAG, 2009).

However, despite all these warnings, in just two years after the completion of the Carrying Capacity Study, the Government of Sikkim has gone ahead declaring 28 such projects on the Teesta in Sikkim alone. The justification is that hydropower projects, especially the river projects, are environmentally benign.

The Ministry of Environment and Forests have made it mandatory to have three-tier monitoring committees at the Central, State, and at the project levels. They are mandated to meet twice a year and involve the local community in monitoring these projects. Apart from this, there are several other stipulations and legal provisions to safeguard the environment and involve local people in decision making. However, very little has been put into practice on the ground.

A number of protests have been held by the local people and enough has been written about it. However, most of this writing and media coverage is confined to the north or northeastern region where many such ill-conceived projects are underway. However, there is a visible apathy and/or lack of awareness regarding the issue in the rest of the country.

Ironically, over a third of hydropower projects along the Teesta are being executed by private players from the South. Being geographically removed, they may mistakenly think that they have little at stake in terms of the ecosystem impact. Or could it be simply a case of denial? Whatever be the case, there is definitely neither recognition nor acceptance of the consequences of our single-minded pursuit of economic growth and consequently energy requirements.

One needs to acknowledge that the time has come to understand and accept the basic fact of life: Nature knows no boundaries. The pilgrims of Kedarnath were from all over the country. The north and northeast are becoming increasingly popular as tourist destinations. The same entrepreneurs and commercial interests are, in fact, promoting this region as prized and “to-be-seen” destinations meant for the rich and the famous.

It won’t be an exaggeration to say that tomorrow the kith and kin of the same rich and famous could be the likely victims of the unforeseen impact of this incessant abuse of the ecosystem that is currently underway. We need to not only re-evaluate our approach to development but also plan and respond proactively to the warnings given by the experts in the field. If not, we should be prepared to learn it the hard way — nature will take its own course.